Should the Democrats heed the clear warnings in the exit polls? Or are they worried about where that might lead?
While the media has reported that Senator Obama's demographic support has improved over time, it has thus far neglected to report that the racial split in the Democrat nomination has been clear and unyielding. Senator Obama has won his delegates based almost entirely on three voting groups: blacks, white educated liberals, and white independent/Republican crossovers. (Here’s my spreadsheet of vote totals by exit poll percentages).
This raises a tough question for the Democrat superdelegates and party leaders. Should they heed the strong preference of the white and Hispanic Democrat voters, regardless of actual delegate allocation, or should they adhere to the results of the primary and caucus system that currently gives Obama the lead? This question, one that the superdelegate role was created to answer, has not been fully examined because of an understandable reluctance to look at the role race plays in an election that is supposed to be beyond such narrow considerations.
Any examination must begin with white Democrats, the least reliable and most critical of the groups the Democrats must hold on to in the general election. Obama has only won the white Democrat vote in two state primaries, Illinois, his home state, and New Mexico (the most anomalous of his wins, Clinton won by carrying the Hispanic vote 2:1). In twelve state primaries, white Democrats comprised over half the voting population. Obama has won only three of these states: Connecticut, Wisconsin, and Utah. In all three states, he had needed assistance to offset his weakness in attracting white Democrat votes. For example, he lost both the white Democrat vote and the overall Democrat vote in Connecticut, taking his margin of victory from white independents. He lost the white Democrat vote in Wisconsin but won the overall Democrat vote with a boost from black voters. In Utah, he tied Clinton for the white Democrat vote and slightly touched her out on the overall; despite its rural image, the state's Democrat population is white and educated, with 52% having a college or post graduate degree.
In contrast, Clinton has won several state primaries with only a plurality of white Democrat voters due to her strong Hispanic support, but she has cleaned up 75% of the majority white Democrat voting states. In most cases, the higher the percentage of white Democrats in the primaries, the wider the margin of Clinton victory. In the south, Clinton stomped all over Obama with the white Democrat vote, winning Alabama 76-21, Arkansas 86-12, Georgia 59-38, Louisiana 66-25, Tennessee74-20, South Carolina 42-23 (with Edwards in the race). New York and Massachusetts may not seem like white strongholds, but in fact the first is 61 and the second 56 percent white Democrats; she won the category in both states by over 20 points. Even in New Hampshire (54%), with all the other candidates involved, Clinton captured the majority of white Democrats (in New Hampshire, that’s all Democrats), beating Obama 45-34.
While Obama has increased his margin of victory with the overall white vote, he has not done so by making his case to white Democrats. Rather, as McCain has wrapped up the Republican nomination, a growing number of white independents and Republicans are voting in the Democrat primaries. Over a third of the voters in the Wisconsin and Utah primaries and close to a quarter of the vote in Virginia and Missouri were white independents and Republicans. Obama won that category decisively in all four states. His dominance of the independents hasn’t been consistent; Clinton won white independents in ten of the primaries 1 to Obama's thirteen. She has won the white male vote in eleven primaries, including eight of the Super Tuesday primaries. 2
(March 4th Update: Clinton continued her southern dominance of white Democrats in Texas, beating Obama 62-37. She held him to a tie among all white male voters. Obama added a win to the white Democrats in Vermont. While the media has asserted that Clinton has “regained her base”, the more likely explanation is that white independents and Republicans were just 23% of the voters and thus had less impact on the demographic categories. Ironically, this is the first time the media has mentioned their potential influence.
In Ohio, independents and Republicans behaved very differently from those in Wisconsin. Clinton won independents and tied in Republicans. While it’s possible that Clinton’s message changed their minds, the equally strong possibility is that independents and Republicans who chose to vote in Ohio were substantively different than those in other states. In Rhode Island, Clinton simply dominated in every category.
Generally, the March 4th primaries support the contention that demographics predict the outcome. Wisconsin and Virginia are anomalous not in the pattern of support, but the particular combination of Obama’s required demographics.)
Obama's other enormous advantage lies in the caucus states. Analysts have stretched to find explanations for his success in majority-white Midwestern state caucuses, while ignoring what has long been considered conventional wisdom; namely, caucuses, a form of appointment voting that requires voters to publicly support their candidate at a scheduled time, are designed to attract the committed voter. Committed Democrat voters skew extremely liberal, and liberals have a well-documented preference for Obama.
The Idaho and Nevada caucuses took place in the media glare and attracted a larger, more representative group, particularly in Nevada, which Clinton won on the basis of her strong Hispanic support. The rest of the caucuses have often been tiny affairs: 45,000 in Maine, 40,000 in Nebraska, 20,000 in Idaho, 35,000 in Hawaii, and 8,000 in Alaska. The largest were still quite small—no caucus has exceeded a quarter of a million, even in large states like Minnesota and Washington. (Note: I originally used CNN and MSNBC exit polls here, but they didn’t reliably report turnout and in many cases just used state delegates—a much smaller number for some states. These are the updated figures. Cite for actual turnout)
Are state caucuses reliable indicators of the overall voter preferences? Washington state obligingly provided a demonstration with its recent "beauty contest" primary. On February 9th, Washington held a caucus that Obama won by nearly 40 points with 250,000 voters (a relatively small turnout). Two weeks later, the state held a primary that didn't count. The state didn't have any other major issues on the ballot. Voters were forced to sign a declaration swearing they belonged to the party whose primary they were voting in. Finally, the vote occurred after several weeks of solid Obama victories, which would presumably serve to inspire Obama and depress the Clinton vote. All these factors suggest that only the most dedicated voters would turn up, and that any undecided voters would be likely to be swayed towards Obama by the momentum he has built up.
A million voters showed up for the "meaningless" primary. Obama’s margin of victory shrunk to just 5 points. Without exit polls, demographic popularity can’t be assessed with certainty, but many of Washington's counties have nice clean demographic splits. Yakima County, which is 40% Hispanic, went 53-43 for Clinton. Cowlitz County, a white working class county, went 58-39 for Clinton. Overall, Clinton won or tied in 17 counties, which means that the delegate apportioning would have had very different results with a primary--particularly if voters had thought it counted.
Obama has picked up 196 of his delegates with a total of under 600,000 votes in ten caucuses, a number that Clinton chews up and nearly swallows with her margin of victory in California alone. The Washington results strongly suggest that primary votes, even if the voters weren't deluged by ads and campaign stops, would yield profoundly different results than the caucuses, and that the caucuses can't reasonably be considered a reliable indicator of the state's Democrat voter preference.
Thus, examined closely, Obama's seemingly overwhelming victories show no certain momentum and no measurable progress in the key demographic groups. Democrat voters have now been subjected to a month or more of overwhelming media onslaught about Obama's victories. Yet the Washington primary, held just last week, strongly suggests that white and Hispanic Democrat voters have remained unconvinced.
If the Democratic nomination were the end result of the process, we could all marvel at the Obama campaign's genius at effectively making use of the party's delegate apportionment system and liberal caucuses. However, the nominee in this case only gets the opportunity--and the responsibility--to take on a popular maverick moderate in the general election.
The consistency of the exit polls strongly suggests that a pledged delegate count is almost meaningless as an indicator of the most viable candidate. Whether the Democrats opt for Clinton or Obama, the demographic tradeoffs have thus far proved so unyielding that they should be paramount in the final decision, rendering delegate counts irrelevant.
Any practical assessment of the primary results reveals that Hillary Clinton has won the usually essential demographics consistently and by wide margins. Obama’s coalition of blacks and highly educated voters will not be enough on their own. Against Hillary's demographic support, Obama can offer his strong showing among white independents and Republicans and argue that his support will carry over to the general. However, Clinton has won the independent vote in primaries nearly as often as Obama has, many states by equally large margins, although Obama has won the majority of these voters.
A larger problem with Obama’s success with independent voters is their reliability. Independent voters are hard to predict, and their behavior certainly can't be generalized from primary voting patterns. Independents choose their primaries, and their preferences distort meaningful predictions of their behavior. They don’t always poll reliably, either—-just ask Michael Dukakis, who was up 10 points in June of 1988, based largely on his strong support from independents. In November, Bush 41 took the independent vote by 20 points. Conversely, John Kerry did well but not spectacularly among independents in primaries, but the stiff, awkward candidate beat George Bush 49-48 among independents in the general.
So Obama’s strength with independents is attractive, but the ephemeral nature of independent support makes it a shaky bet against white and Hispanic Democrat support. If Obama’s strong support among liberals and blacks isn’t enough to carry the general, and the independents are a big question mark, the final question to ask is whether or not the entire Democrat base will rally behind him if he wins the nomination. Lacking a crystal ball, the Democrats will be left balancing probabilities. The eventual nominee will be running against John McCain, an experienced, capable and popular Republican who has strong appeal with moderates and independents. Betting the presidency on the likelihood that white moderate Democrats in critical states will loyally vote for an inexperienced candidate who they actively rejected in the primary is, to say the least, a risky proposition. The hard truth is that that white moderate and working class Democrats and Hispanics (to say nothing of Asians and Jewish voters in a few key states) are going to find a lot to like in McCain if Obama is the nominee.
Will Obama’s supporters accept Clinton? White liberals and blacks are the most loyal of Democrats. Liberals are much louder than the white Democrat base—particularly in the blogosphere-- but the latter has far more influence at the ballot. Blacks are an important source of overall Democrat support and are needed to deliver a margin of victory in a few key states (for example, Ohio), but Hispanics are critical in more swing states, and ignoring their preferences could put Western states—even California—in play. Besides, while some blacks may stay home, they are unlikely to vote for McCain. Hispanics are far less loyal; between 30 and 40 percent of them voted for Bush in the last election.
Using nothing more than conventional truths that generally prove out at election time, Obama needs far more white and Hispanic Democrats to switch allegiance than Hillary needs blacks and liberals. Unless the Democrats are certain that white and Hispanic Democrats will switch overwhelmingly to Obama, they are probably safer with Clinton, even assuming weak liberal and black voter turnout. Obviously, the risk of internecine war is considerable, which may explain why Clinton has not gone negative, while Obama’s supporters seem more willing to threaten a split. If the Democrat superdelegates appear to be deciding in favor of Clinton’s electability, their most pressing issue will be assuaging Obama’s supporters. Clinton’s restraint may end up serving her well.
The media and its analysts have been portraying the superdelegate override as undemocratic, but that is certainly the role the Democrats intended the superdelegates to play. Susan Estrich, who was a member of the Rules Commission that created the superdelegates, pointed out that their freedom was expressly intended to override the popularly decided delegate allocation. If superdelegates believe that Obama won’t win the general election, the rules were designed to allow them to throw their support for the nomination to Clinton, pace Donna Brazile, who has threatened to leave the party if the popular allocation is overruled.
But would they be overriding the popular vote? Perhaps the combination of caucus primaries and strong independent/Republican presence has already overridden the voter will. The candidate who has lost California, New York, Florida, New Jersey, Tennessee, Arkansas, Ohio, and Texas by substantial margins is ahead on the strength of caucus wins in Kansas, Nebraska, and Idaho, coupled with a combination of white independent/Republican and an understandably skewed black vote in South Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia, and Virginia primaries. Currently, even if caucus votes are added in, Clinton appears to be ahead in total Democat votes. If the entire primary season were to run its course with no significant demographic change, Clinton will win the Democrat vote overall, even assuming all caucus voters are Democrats. It's hard to argue that the party’s popular will hasn't been clearly expressed in favor of Hillary Clinton.
Any superdelegate who wants to honestly discuss the issues raised here will be accused of dismissing the black vote, the source of the majority of Obama's big primary victories, and the caucuses, a process that has a long and popular history, as irrelevant. The former, certainly, will cause enormous difficulties. Raising this issue leaves one open to the charge of racism, or at the very least of suggesting that the Democrats should cater to the white and Hispanic Democrat base in what the media purports to be a racist preference.
Yet surely this question can be flipped around. Are blacks and liberals voting for Obama because of his race? (John Judis seems to think they are).Few would seriously argue that a white candidate with Obama’s thin resume would be in serious contention for the nomination. Given how much Obama’s support springs from just two Democratic strongholds, it’s entirely possible that white and Hispanic Democrats are the ones making a straightforward assessment on experience and ideas instead of race.
Regardless of who ultimately receives the nomination, an honest discussion of this issue should be undertaken soon, to be sure that the Democrats go into this nomination with their eyes open. Any conversation, both internally and publicly, should be held now, not in June. Perhaps there's a case to be made that Obama can win with the support he's shown thus far, or that whites and Hispanics will transfer their allegiance in enough numbers to make him competitive. Or perhaps they will decide that the safest bet is Clinton, who has numbers that normally would have carried the day without Obama’s strong performance in the favorable February primaries (caucuses and southern states). Certainly, any consideration of the popular will must include Florida and Michigan3. Ultimately, it might be more honest to accept that the pledged delegate counts aren’t the best way to decide this election. This conversation should be held soon. If Clinton’s demographics don’t change substantially, she’s going to win many of the remaining states and all of the Democrat vote, which gives her an outstanding argument for staying. In any event, the resulting conversation, while difficult, would be far more honest than the illusion of Obama’s commanding lead.
1 Clinton beat out Obama for independent white voters in: South Carolina (28-27,second to Edwards), Georgia (50-46), New Jersey (51-43), Alabama(64-31), Florida (39-24, winning over Edwards and Obama), Tennessee (49-39), Delaware (59-33), Massachusetts (55-41), Arkansas ( 59-28), and Oklahoma (41-38, no exit poll data for white independents; used overall instead.)
2 Clinton won the white male vote in South Carolina (28-27,second to Edwards), Alabama(70-27), Louisiana (51-31), New Jersey (58-39), Florida (45-27, winning over Edwards and Obama), Tennessee (58-32), Arizona (46-45), Missouri (55-41), Arkansas (71-24), New York (52-43), and Oklahoma (55-32). She also won white males in Michigan (54-38), and even though she picked up around 18% of Obama’s voters, her lead in white men probably would have held.
3 The Michigan exit polls asked voters who they would have voted for had all the names been on the ballot. Clinton won over Obama 46-35, with Edwards getting 12 percent of the vote.Cal Lanier -- Monday, February 25, 2008 -- 01:22:10 AM -- 1 of 3
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